Welsh Social History
Contents of this section
This was often part of the process of land enclosure : the landowner would rearrange
his estate as compact farms, including common land, and would combine some small
farms to create a larger farm. A larger farm would make more profit and would be
offered to whoever was prepared to pay the highest rent. As a result the poorer tenants
lost their hold on the land completely.
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Rural society of the recent past, its character and daily life, were associated
with the distribution and with the history of settlement. The past exists in the
nature of the settlement pattern; in the small irregularly shaped fields surrounding
a simple homestead. It persists in the names given to fields, which indicate they
were named by the occupants of a single farm rather than by a community from a fixed
village centre; names like 'Field in front of the house', 'Hay Field', 'New Field',
'Mountain Field', signifying a stage in land tenure, when the poorer wasteland was
incorporated into the farm.
Many farms in Wales are family farms, and even today the farms of close relatives
are nearby. Just as consanguinity was all-important in tribal society, so too are
blood relationship and relationship by marriage important in present day society.
The loyalty of members to the particular family group is always evident, however
far removed the degree of relationship may be. The knowledge of genealogies symbolises
the importance of family and their part in ordering the lives of members of the group.
In medieval Welsh society co-operation was considered to be the duty of farmers.
At harvest time, especially during hay making, and at potato lifting, co-operation
was widely practised, and the individual farmer considered it to be his duty to help
his neighbour, knowing that this favour would be repaid when the need arose.
Much of Wales consists of inhospitable moorland with narrow valleys leading from
the central core of upland like the spokes of a wheel. Much of this land above 1000
ft. is poor and stony, while the climate is damp. Even in the more favoured valleys
it is difficult when the mists and rain are persistent. The vast majority of the
population lived off the land. Their main crop was oats, especially in the upland
areas, although barley and wheat were gaining ground in Anglesey, the southwest and
the border counties. To obtain a good crop of barley or wheat sunshine is essential.
No part of Wales may be said to be perfectly suited to the growth cereal crops so
by tradition animal husbandry is pre-dominant. In only a few areas, however, such
as the Gower and the Vale of Glamorgan was cereal growing more important than stock
rearing. Thousands of cattle, sheep, horses and ponies were grazed on the pastures
and moors of the Principality of Wales. Although the farms of Wales were small, the
typical holdings being between thirty and sixty acres, they supplied almost all the
farmer's needs. Wales was therefore a largely self-sufficient unit. Agricultural
produce was exported in considerable quantities from ports such as Carmarthen and
Chepstow. In the north, barley and oats were shipped from Rhuddlan to Liverpool,
while the chief English market for south Wales was Bristol. Every Wednesday corn,
meat and butter were sold at Bristol in the 'Welsh Market House'.
In the 18th C. most small farmers had holdings of less than sixty acres. These were
either freehold properties or were rented half-yearly. The farmers with the help
of their wives and children raised cattle and sheep, and perhaps a little corn. They
often lived no better than labourers, with whom they occasionally worked on larger
farms. 'Several of the lower kind of farmers, and their dependents', said one observer,
ëhave their tables as scantily supplied with the luxuries of salted bacon, butter
and cheese, as even the paupers they are forced to relieve. Their homes, especially
the smoke-filled and damp upland shacks, were justifiably called habitations of wretchedness.
Sheep and cattle provide the raw materials for two important industries as well as
the normal production of meat and milk for food and drink; these are woollen manufacturing
and leather production. The village craftsmen and the artisans of country towns possibly
enjoyed a more comfortable existence. There were boot and shoemakers, carpenters,
masons, blacksmiths, tailors, weavers, saddlers and coopers in Wales.
All woodwork was carried out by country craftsmen who were able to make everything
in wood from fences to farm vehicles: metalwork was the province of the local blacksmith
and the farmers themselves made a great deal of their own equipment.
To many a hill farmer, life was a constant battle against gorse, heather and reeds
that threatened to take over the limited amount of arable land. The income of the
hill farmer was always low, and he could afford neither elaborate and costly equipment
nor much beyond a staple diet of home grown food. Potatoes, oatmeal, milk products
and bacon were the main elements of rural diet, which in many areas was extremely
In most parts of Wales all the food required by the community could be produced locally.
In the 19th C. farming depended almost entirely on a range of hand tools, a large
labour force and the assistance of relatives and neighbours during the busy parts
of the year.
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